Produced by Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE), an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. All rights reserved. For more information visit: http://ideasforcreativeexploration.com/podcasts/
Mark Callahan: Welcome to the ICE Conversation Series, for an interview with Steven Tepper, Associate Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. He visited the University of Georgia as part of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts Distinguished Lecturer series, where he gave a talk at the Georgia Museum of Art about creative work and the work of creativity. Steven Tepper is a leader in the field of cultural policy and and he's the author of a new book called Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest Over Art and Media in America. Here's Steven:
Steven Tepper: I grew up in a family of art enthusiasts and was exposed to a lot of art, and I was a visual artist going to a range of intensive summer arts and after-school arts programs and there was a point at which - I mean everybody who pursues the arts probably has that gut check moment. I think mine came when I was in a class at Einstein High School summer arts program and we were asked to paint a still life, and it was the typical still life objects such as an old book and a vase and a boot, and I was faithfully reproducing this - the boot and the book and the vase - and we took a break after an hour or so and you could walk around and see what other students were doing, and every student seemed to be seeing something that I didn't see. Some had the book melting off the table and another painted their self portrait in the reflection of the vase and someone else had insects crawling out of the boot. All those things might have been good or bad, I don't know now in retrospect, but at that time I said to myself, "Maybe I'm not - maybe I'm not creative. If creativity means having this sort of wild imagination, maybe I don't have it." And I think that's when I planted the seed of doubt, or the seed was planted and it made me question whether or not I could pursue a life in the arts.
And then it was kind of confirmed for me in my first year in college, when I took an intermediate painting class - and I had been painting most of my life - and professor Bernard came in the first day of class and said, "I just want everybody to know that I don't believe in grading art so everybody will get a C." And I said, "Wow, a C. Why not an A? Am I prepared to get Cs? Am I so committed to my artistic possibilities and artistic life?" And I think the combination of those two things made me say, "No, this is not going to be my life's work." I think, in retrospect, there are a lot of mythologies around creativity that I found myself susceptible to - and I've spent much of my career trying to dispel those as a scholar in the social sciences - but one is that creativity is somehow this mythical, magical, inexplicable, eccentric, weird, it requires giving up all the other things in life to do, you have to not care about relationships or care about security and I don't think that's true.
I mean, a creative life is hard work. It's about discipline. It's about craft. And it's not this "other thing" that's not, somehow, real life. And so, I think those mythologies drove me out of the arts, but I wanted to spend my life still connected and studying so when I ended up in a public policy program at Harvard I decided, "What about policy in the arts?" And of course there wasn't a program, but I figured out a way to write all of my papers on some aspect of the arts and then, just at that time, there was a movement to create a field of cultural policies studies and Princeton set up a center there and I pursued a sociology doctorate and started my life in cultural policy and studying the arts. If I wasn't going to do them, I wanted to understand them and, more broadly, understand the nature of creativity.
MC: So your studies and your career really coincided with the emergence of cultural policy in the United States. What was going on, why did that happen?
ST: Cultural policy was really an immature field. There were a couple of people, handful of scholars maybe, writing about issues of the challenges facing non-profit arts. There was kind of a thesis called the "cost disease" by Bowen and Baumol, which was one of the first cultural policy pieces talking about why performing arts organizations would always face, essentially, deficits because they could not take advantage of the efficiencies of technology. A symphony orchestra would always require a certain number of people playing, and the cost of labor would go up and they wouldn't get productivity gains. So there was this cost disease issue, and in some ways the whole non-profit enterprise was organized around that thesis, which is that they need subsidy because arts organizations don't see productivity gains, but basically there was very little other research and policy conversation around the arts.
The arts ended up - if we remember in the late 1980s and early 90s, it was a train wreck around the culture wars and National Endowment for the Arts was under fire, almost defunded entirely. State arts agencies were under fire. Much of this started out from controversial grants that were made to artists who challenged conventions but what happened was that the arts crowd - when faced with the questions, why shouldn't we get rid of arts funding? what would happen if we did? why is arts funding so important? what does is matter that we have robust arts in this country? - they had no data or evidence. All they had were anecdotes and stories, and in the policy arena those just don't work, they don't fly. And so a group of foundations at that time said, "You know, we need to start investing in research and policy for the arts and next time we face a crisis we will not be blind, and we will have a library of data and studies and various policy alternatives all worked out the way every other policy field has." Transportation, and health, and education -
MC: They've got the data.
ST: They've got the data! And they've got communities of policy thinkers and scholars who have been auditioning ideas. One of the things we know, the way policy gets made is you have what is called a "policy soup," which are a bunch of ideas, alternatives, that have been worked out by scholars and experts and they just hang out for a while until the right opportunity opens up - some crisis happens, some new political opportunity - and then an idea that's been in the hopper for a while gets auditioned. And we didn't even have those ideas, I mean there was no policy soup at all.
So these foundations got together - the Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller [Foundation], the Pew Charitable Trusts, and a bunch of others - and decided to invest in trying to build this infrastructure, and part of the way they were going to do that was to create policy centers at universities and fund research. It was a real promising movement in the early 1990s, and lots of work was funded and there were some exciting things. A little bit of that ran its course, people lost their - the foundations changed their funding priorities - and so we've made some progress in cultural policy but I wouldn't say we've arrived at a place where we have a robust policy community.
But my work, from the beginning, I was sort of the first graduate student who was studying cultural policy so I've had a foot in it for the last fifteen years and there have been good studies, especially around arts education. There has been work around how arts can revitalize urban areas. I mean, we're more sophisticated. I think our challenge is not only a lack of data, but a lack of knowing what are the right questions to ask in the first place. Other policy areas have very well defined puzzles that they're trying to understand, and in the arts, other than the fact that we don't have enough money, we don't really have a set of questions that get at the public interest in the arts and what kind of research and policy we need to advance the public interest. In fact, that's a good conversation for any arts community to have, which is, what is the public interest?
ST: What are we doing? Who is it benefiting? And how do we know when we're doing it well and when we're not doing it well? What are the standards? And which thing should we prioritize? We can't do everything. That's what a policy discussion is, and that's not really what we - we have advocacy meetings, which is, we come together in the arts and say, "What's a message that might work?" And we construct the message and we take it out and start to advocate for more resources, but that's not a mature policy community. You know, we're hopeful that the arts will get there but I think it requires - we don't do ourselves any great favor in art schools when we teach as if people do their art in a vacuum. I mean, I know some arts programs are pushing their graduates to be more socially aware and active, but it seems like every art student needs to understand the arts ecology that they're going into. They need to understand everything from technical issues around contracts and setting up organizations, to understanding the policies around intellectual property that affect the work they do. And right now that's not a priority for art schools, which mainly focus on craft and technique, but I think every artist that graduates needs to be both an artist and at least a lay policy thinker.
MC: So, you've been going around and visiting a lot of campuses across the country and there's this term, "creative campus movement." How did that come about?
ST: It began in 2003 and 2004 when a couple university presidents at the time - it was Nancy Cantor, who was at the University of Illinois, and Lee Bollinger at Columbia, who were the co-chairs of a summit or convening called the American Assembly, which is a convening instrument that Columbia University has, where they try and bring people together a couple times a year around big national issues. Bollinger and Cantor and the two program directors - Sandra Gibson, who was head of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, and Alberta Arthurs, who was former head of arts for Rockefeller [Foundation] - they decided that higher education in the arts would be a good topic. They called together university presidents and artists and deans, and that meeting was partly to raise awareness of how completely committed universities are to the arts. They often don't count up their investments, but if one did you would find that the arts ecology is really supported by universities. They are the biggest patrons of the arts in the twenty-first century. If you took all their stages and their libraries and their museums and their collections and their arts faculty, there are a lot of resources. And I think the purpose of the American Assembly was to say, look, these are assets that need to be cared for, they need to be prioritized, they need to be as important as your athletic facilities and your science facilities and science faculty. And so we're ringing the bell and saying, you university presidents that are out there, that think the arts are fun and kind of a grace note on campus, need to realize that your institutions play a critical role in the arts ecology and you need to take that seriously.
So after that meeting, I guess I probably popularized that term the "creative campus" when I wrote an opinion editorial, sort of a cover story for the Chronicle of Higher Education ["The Creative Campus: Who's No. 1?" October 4, 2004] where I took the idea of the creative campus meeting and said, well this is important but the arts are only one piece of it. That the larger issue is, where is creativity on a college campus? How is it supported? Do our institutional structures facilitate it or do they impede it? And we need a broader conversation about creativity, and the arts need to be part of that conversation. But it shouldn't be about the arts so much as about creativity more broadly, so the creative campus - it's a movement with lots of different parts and it's not commanded by a single general. One big piece of it was the Doris Duke Charitable Trust gave out several million dollars to university campuses whose presenters - the campus presenter - came up with innovative ways to integrate the arts on campus. And that typically took the form of visiting artists coming in and the presenter was - these were often residencies - and the presenter worked really hard at brokering relationships between that visiting artist, and people who that visiting artist wouldn't normally have connected with.
MC: This more than just having someone come and give a performance, then go to the next town. They're going to stay a while and really try -
ST: They're going to stay a while, and they're going to work with collaborators, and they're going to build projects in multidisciplinary teams. Many of these projects worked with scientists. Some of them were organized around themes, so instead of a single artist coming - although sometimes a single artist was the launching - they would pick a theme. The death penalty, or class divide, or global warming, and they would take the arts and use them to solicit all areas of campus to do programs and projects to address the theme. And some departments used collaboration with an artist or an arts program on campus. Some just did their own programs, but it's pretty powerful, I think, when a campus says let's all look at this thing, this topic, this issue, and all of us have something to say about it and one way we can project the value of interdisciplinarity is to at least see these variations on a theme. To see all these different ways people can perceive and translate and communicate.
Those projects were more "everyone playing their instrument at the same time but not together," and that can be effective and powerful, but some of the creative campus projects funded were much more collaborative from the very beginning. It wasn't just "let's all cooperate and do something cool and we'll all be on the same poster together." Let's actually do something together. Troika Ranch at University of Nebraska worked with an ocular therapy group to figure out how they could create a new way for people to use their eyeballs, if people had disabilities, to paint. That required all kinds of technical exchange and an intricate collaboration that really couldn't just happen overnight. They had to develop a long relationship, and trust, and common language in ways of working together. And the project was really organized with a particular - not just an artistic outcome, but an outcome that would advance the mission of the ocular center. So the projects range - other people trying to talk about creativity more, they're creating interdisciplinary centers, there are grants for creative research projects - and I think there's just been more discussion and conversation around the country. I think what it's done is that it's given people some language.
Our universities have always had, I would say, the "productive misfits." People who are on campus and they're part of the institutional structure. They have succeeded within the campus environment but they really want to do work differently, and they really want more creative elbow room but they don't really have a way of advancing that campus-wide. And so what the creative campus has done is provide a set of articles - it's provided a discourse so that these folks on campus can get a conversation started now. They can bring someone in who's a part of the innovations grant program or someone from the American Assembly, the original American Assembly meeting and say, OK, I'm going to get my dean, I'm going to get this faculty together, we're going to have this conversation and we're going to start something. At least a discussion - and where those discussions go will vary - some of them go toward curricular innovation, creating new kinds of classes, new kinds of certificate programs or minors. Some of them go to creating new spaces on campus, and others towards creating funding opportunities for collaborative research, and others go towards, let's figure out how we can serve our communities better, how our arts faculty and students can do projects that get well beyond the campus walls.
So they've all taken different shapes but I think the central thing is getting people's attention, saying creativity is not something to just leave alone and hope it happens. We know enough about creativity that we know what kinds of conditions are more favorable, and we know what kinds of practices work, and we know what are the challenges of interdisciplinarity, and we can manage those processes better if we're smart about it. I think we're at a point where we can approach creativity on campus in a much more sophisticated way than perhaps we could have a decade or two ago.
MC: Well, from a policy standpoint, what's important about interdisciplinarity? Why has it become such an issue?
ST: I think there are a few answers to that. One is that funding sources have identified interdisciplinary as key. The National Science Foundation is increasingly given out grants for projects that are interdisciplinary, and they require that. And the reason is because they know that the most complex problems that we're trying to solve - whether in medicine or poverty or vexing economical issues - will require a multidisciplinary lens and no single discipline can figure it out. I mean, diabetes is not just a medical problem - it's a social problem, and a medical problem, and a community problem, and an economic problem. So if you just have a team of doctors trying to figure out how to solve diabetes, it's not going to work. Malaria is the same way - people who are working on curing malaria, you can't do that. Not only is it interdisciplinary scientifically - so you need people who are physicists, and you also need people who understand chemistry, and you also need people that understand biology and molecular structure - you need the engineers, and you need a sociologist who understands how people move, not just how mosquitoes move. These problems require interdisciplinarity.
We know from creativity research that most of our cutting edge advances happen at the borders between disciplines. It doesn't mean that you throw away disciplinary knowledge - the people who make these discoveries and advances are all quite accomplished in their discipline, but they're also curious, and they're also dabbling in other areas, and they also have lunches or have their little collaborative circles with people from different disciplines where they can playfully exchange ideas, and it's that stuff that eventually leads to insights. Some of our greatest insights come from simply analogical thinking. There's some analogy or something that someone else uses in their discipline to explain how cells move and that concept is really useful for understanding how organizations diffuse models of management practices. That's often how discoveries get made, so you have to be engaged in those conversations or those analogies are never even possible for you.
But the other thing I think is important, is what kind of work will people do in their lives. There are still jobs that are reasonably narrowly defined within the parameters of certain kinds of skill sets - a network analyst - but most people will do a variety of different kinds of jobs that require them to be adaptable and flexible, and to draw on a range of skills. Graduating with a disciplinary - so I'm an expert in a certain kind of engineering, but then your life is filled with working on complex puzzles - I don't even think we train our students well, necessarily, in the current structure of requiring them to go deep in one major and become a specialist, when the world needs people who can integrate knowledge, not necessarily specialize. I think one of the advantages of interdisciplinarity - or one of the policy implications - is that we need more nimble workers in the world, and if universities aren't a place where that happens it can happen in other places, and people will have to try and pick those skills up as they just try to survive, but why not give them a head start?
And importantly, part of it is an identity issue. As a sociologist I really think about, creativity is not just a skill, it's also your idea about who you are and what you should be doing. I think it's important for undergraduates to see themselves as creative people. That identity is important. If you asked graduating seniors, I would suspect that eighty percent would say, "I'm not creative." That's not helpful. That would be like eighty percent, thirty years ago, saying, "No, I'm not literate." Creativity is the twenty-first century literacy, so that's not good enough for us. We need people graduating believing that they're creative and having had experienced these creative moments - which often happen in interdisciplinary projects - so they feel some confidence and some sense that, "I can work on projects like that and I'm proud of what I did, and who would have thought when I started that project, that it would have looked like this." I think they need to experience that, and they need to incorporate that into their own self-awareness.
MC: Are there any examples of programs or projects that really stick out from your travels around the country?
ST: There are lots - it's hard to pick a few. I've always been very taken by problem-oriented curricula. So, Ball State University has a center for creative inquiry [Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry]. It's run by a guy named Joe Trimmer and they, every year, sponsor maybe six to eight of these creative seminars, where students from different disciplines come together with a faculty member and pick a problem that they're trying to solve, and they spend the semester creatively solving the problems but then also having to do a public presentation. They have to express what they did in some form, so it has a creative form component to it. There are examples of students that went to Ireland to talk about heritage, and they did oral interviews, and then they came back and produced a radio program. Other students who worked on developing the property around a river and creating a solution for mixed-use. So a range from the humanities to projects that are more organized around engineering, or architecture, or urban planning. If you look at their list it's just really cool stuff, and you just have to think that if you're a student, and you get to be part of this collaborative team, and that's all they do for the semester! It's not one course. These kids only enroll in this class, and so the kind of depth and exploration that can happen is really - and probably the first third is just getting the ground rules: learning trust, learning how other students from other disciplines think about problems. So I think that's a really great model.
There are lots of models around technology centers. Obviously the MIT Media Lab, but there are lots of variations of that kind of thing, where media becomes the thing that allows different groups to come together. And you have small labs, which are really cool, and then you have the big grand experiments like Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where Shirley Jackson has created this experimental performing arts center [Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center] and it's just - the amount of money invested and the technology and the scope and the scale of the projects are just so exciting. And she's saying, if we're going to invest in big research - like the human genome project or particle physics, who are building these huge experiments - we should be able to invest in big art that's experimental as well. And so I think that's really an inspiring model, but it's not one that most of us can model.
You know, I think Liz Lerman is a great example - she's done a bunch of these creative campus programs. When she goes onto a campus, and she is so curious and she'll say, "I'm doing my next project on genetics." And she'll sit in on genetics classes, and she'll take geneticists out to lunch, and she'll create seminars where they talk about their issues and she'll translate that into an artistic project. But what's important about Liz is she sees it as a two-way street, right? So she's not just trying to - "I'm going to siphon of all this great information from these geneticists and I'm gonna put it to a dance." She tries to create a dance that helps the geneticists answer some of the questions they're interested in. That helps them see their issues differently, and also to teach differently. One of my favorite examples is she described working with a biology professor, where I guess the students were trying to understand cell movement, and she had the students actually embody the cells and move around the classroom. And as a choreographer, that was natural for her but the students had never done that before. But the faculty member said that they learned that lesson better than they had ever learned science before. That by embodying the process, it triggered a different kind of intelligence - it's a different kind of learning. So, Liz is kind of perfect at that. There are other artists that do that kind of work, who are able to come in and listen intently, engage faculty from non-arts disciplines, and create a true collaborative piece.
MC: That seems to be a good example of arts-based inquiry.
ST: Yeah, that's right. I think arts-based inquiry is really a strong description for the way the arts can be integrated. The arts provide a different lens for pursuing questions in any area, and they do that in a number of ways which are different than other disciplines. One, the arts are really good at rapid prototyping - where you try some stuff, you fail, try again, you fail, and there can be a playfulness. Artists are more tolerant of ambiguity than a lot of others are, so they can begin projects. True interdisciplinary projects are ambiguous - you don't know what's going to happen. You've never gotten these kinds of people in a room together. Artists are good at dealing with that, so when issues come up artists aren't panicking. This is par for the course for them. "No, we don't know where this is going, but the process we're using is good and lots of ideas are being auditioned, and trial and error."
The arts are also good because they build an emotional component to learning and to research. We've tended to have this false Cartesian divide between mind and body - and education has sided with mind - that to pursue knowledge, you have to be completely objective and rational and any kind of emotional engagement is actually bad. But of course we know from creativity scholars and from people who study motivation in education, that affective engagement in learning is critical. So the fact that the arts can create experiences and conditions where people feel emotionally connected and involved, where they employ empathetic reasoning - those are things that can really facilitate interdisciplinary work. I think the arts provide unique ways to approach problems and I think we have to embrace that part of the arts, as opposed to saying the arts are something that provide us with transcendent experiences after they've produced - they produce something, they put it out there, we engage it, and we're somehow transported by it. As opposed to, let me lock arms with an artist and try and solve this puzzle and see what happens. That's a very different way of thinking of the role of the arts in society.
MC: How are things changing on campuses and what are some of the challenges they face?
ST: I think a lot of these initiatives have come down from the provost, which is important. When deans initiate, things tend to reduce down to more disciplinary ways of doing things, but the provost is tasked with the whole campus. So I think that, to the extent that some of these initiatives have been organized by the provost's office, is really good - a really good indication. In some places you've seen universities attempt to begin the integration process within the arts themselves, because you know it's not as if the arts are seamlessly moving back and forth between disciplines and the only barrier is between the arts and other things. Even within the arts we have silos and challenges, so there are campuses that have really made it a priority to create a position - some of them are called the "arts czar," in some cases it's rearranging what's under the dean's responsibility - to explicitly make the arts integrate better.
And then there are individual faculty members who create studios and labs to do cool stuff, but I think the real challenge is how do you get this into the curriculum. There are some cases of a major - of an interdisciplinary major, and a minor or a certificate program, and I think that those can be real models. In some ways those, especially certificate programs, provide a fairly low bar in terms of getting faculty approval. I mean, a faculty senate is more likely to approve of a certificate than of a new major, and so things often start with a certificate program and then when the demand grows, they become full-fledged majors. I'm all for experimenting and piloting curricular innovations and seeing where they go. I think the students are driving this to some extent - every year I have more students coming to me to sign off on some sort of interdisciplinary major, and the university doesn't advertise this, but the students are doing it.
MC: They find it.
ST: They find it. And they find the faculty that are willing to supervise those majors and so at some point - there's a tipping point where if you have a hundred majors doing something with the word creativity in it, then you know you've got something that you've got to, perhaps, be more purposeful around. That's the other way universities are changing. I think universities are more aware of trying to identify ways in which the campus can collaborate with corporate partners and community partners. I think there are more project-oriented classes where the students work on projects rather than just rather abstract intellectual exercises, and I think those will increase. They're still kind of on the margins right now. One place it's happening - and this is sort of inspired by the Doris Duke grant - is that these arts presenters who have always been there to entertain their campuses by bringing in kind of touring acts, many of them are beginning to re-envision what their role is, and they're realizing that they have to have deeper relationships with the arts faculty. They have to begin programming around the interests of the arts faculty and they have to start seeing themselves as brokers on campus, as opposed to curators of excellence. Instead, they need to facilitate a creative capacity of the campus.
I think, ultimately, the challenge for universities is that no one owns this agenda and there's no one waking up every day thinking, "I need to connect this person and this person because there's a great opportunity there for collaboration." And that's really hard work, and universities create these interesting centers where people are deputized to do that kind of work for a while, but it always feels a little temporary, and that without that single person doing all that herculean work the whole thing would collapse. And so I'm not sure universities have cracked that nut yet. There ought to be a dean of interdisciplinarity or someone who wakes up everyday and gets assessed on their job performance based on how well they're able to integrate and connect the campus. And probably until that happens, it's always going to be somewhat marginal. But, you know, I think we're moving in the right direction. As universities go, when all is said and done, more is said than done. I think that's true of interdisciplinarity - we've been talking about it for thirty years. It's still not a core part of the identity of a campus. I think it's important for campuses to begin to promote themselves and brand themselves in this way.
I think that's the other thing the creative campus movement did - universities recognized that this is a way that they could sell themselves. And I think what's interesting about that is it wasn't necessarily the top ten universities - they don't need to brand themselves, they have enough applicant pools of the best students - but it was the next tier. Good schools, good state universities, good private universities who are in a highly competitive market, who want to sell their universities as offering something different - and that it's not just about the dorms and the dining halls, but you can have an experience here that you can't have some place else. I think a lot of people who got on board the creative campus movement saw it as really a way to brand their campuses and distinguish themselves from their competitors, and I still think the door is wide open.
Lots of campuses have been playing around the margins, talking about creativity and setting up little experiments but someone is going to step forward and say every student is going to graduate having taken a creative capstone class because our campus is so committed to creativity as a central tenant. And when that campus - some campus will, you know it's wide open - someone is going to walk through that door and they will be, at least for a while, the campus people look to as a model for what a creative campus looks like. So the question is, who will be bold enough to really reorient institutional priorities around creativity? I think someone will do it and there are lots of great experiments already, but I wouldn't say there's a model out there yet. And there won't be one model - everyone will figure out their own way to do it - but a model that goes beyond the converted on campus, which is where it has to start. There are people who get it and who want to work across disciplines and who want to work on non-routine problems, so support them. That's a place to start, but how do you scale it up? And that really requires a president saying and a provost saying, "We're going to do it. And if you want to work on this campus, you have to play." I'm looking forward to seeing that happen in the next decade.
MC: As you said, we've had three decades of research showing the importance of creativity and we're definitely in a new economy. There's no argument about that, so the conditions are right.
ST: The conditions are right and it's going to take - it's going to be hard. Now, I've advised various faculty groups who have wanted to make their classes more creative and figure out how to asses it - what kind of grading rubrics do they need? And often those conversations come to this "ah-ha" moment halfway through when they say, "How can we expect our students to be more creative in their assignments, when the assignments we give are not creative?" We have to start thinking that if we want creativity back, then we have to figure out how to structure our assignments and our courses. We can't just add this little thing to our grading rubrics and say to students, "Now we'll also be grading you on creativity." We have to get over what that means.
Frankly, students are terrified of the word, partly because to get into a university they've had to dot the i's and cross the t's and they've figured it out and know what it means to be a student and how to please their professors and how to get the A. So when you give them an assignment that might be a little ambiguous, they freak out. They're kind of split personalities because when they're not being graded, they're living very creative lives. They're very experimental, very improvisational, they're very expressive. But when they're being graded. they kind clamp down onto this corporate student and we need a way to help them bring that experimental, improvisational, expressive part of their personalities and lives into the classroom, and we haven't figured out how to do that. That's one of the challenges. A creative assignment is harder to grade and it's harder to prepare for, so everybody - their natural reaction is not to do it. It's too hard.
MC: What advice would you give someone who is just starting college and may have doubts about their own creativity, or maybe they aren't sure how their creative impulse fits into higher education?
ST: Well, I think finding a community is the first step. So find a handful of classmates who share some of your curiosities and interests, and have a weekly meeting where everyone auditions ideas. I mean, it sounds so old fashioned, right? "We're too busy, we can just do it online," but I think creating these collaborative - we'll call them collaborative circles - is a great thing to do. I think it's also - one of the things we know from creativity research is that almost all the extraordinary, what we consider to be extraordinary creators, kept journals. That creativity requires practice and it requires sticking with a central puzzle. Just writing about it and seeing things that remind you, and writing those things down. And pick something you're curious about and follow, stick with it. Create a central puzzle for yourself. Write about it. Look for things in the paper that address it, talk about it. So I think those things are important.
I think it's important to figure out a way to be playful with your creativity. Find a playful space. And that could be taking an art class - that may be where you feel playful. Maybe doing something extracurricularly, but I think we need to build play into our lives. These are really hard. I mean, if I'm eighteen years old and I'm listening to this advice I'd be, "Are you serious? I need to learn how to do my wash. I need to master the basics of just surviving in college." But I think the ultimate point is, that creativity won't just happen and you have to cultivate it. I think it's important for students to start off writing some kind of narrative of who they are as a creative person. What does that mean? Well, what do you want to contribute? What do you think is distinctive about your sets of talents? What areas would you like to nurture, so that four years from now you think you can make the kind of contribution others can't because you've nurtured these particular skills and dispositions. I think, again, that creative identity piece is important and you don't necessarily develop it without reflecting on it, and I don't see any reason why when students begin in their freshmen year they're not asked to write. Maybe creativity isn't the only thing they're writing about. Maybe it's also, "What does it mean to be a citizen?" Maybe there are a couple core dimensions of a twenty-first century worker-citizen that they ought to reflect on early, and then see how their college prepares them, and organize their college life to help to be more intentional.
All of our studies show that most students sort of just fall into stuff. We've been studying double majors, and I had this hope that double majoring was this secret creative conspiracy that all these kids who couldn't make it - who didn't see their universities as creative places - were figuring it out on their own by combining these unusual majors. And it turns out most of them just fall into it, and they don't even have a good reason. Some of them do and some of them develop them before going out on the job market, but why not make that intentional? Why not make the process of selecting your major and double major as an exercise in thinking of who you are as a creative person? So I think there are opportunities in advising, in the career center, for folks to mentor students and help them develop those narratives of who they are, and I think it's important as an artist too. I mean, we have the artist statement, which is pretty thin when you think about what does it mean to be a creative person. And so, helping artists think about that as well. I think all undergraduates, but in particular we should start with our art schools.
MC: This has been a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Kai Riedl and featured music by The Noisettes.
Recorded on January 22, 2013
Transcription by Brandon Raab and Taylor Hobson